Syrian Universities suffer from students, and teachers, dropping out, and from disconnection to labor market

Investigated by: Zina Shahla

Maram ran her hands across her white uniform to make sure she look well—dressed enough at the start of a new day of work at a downtown Damascus restaurant. By this time, she should have been wearing her white lab coat and getting ready to enter the lab at the Faculty of Pharmacy that she had to leave.

“The insecurity and bombs falling at the university gates didn’t hold me back from pursuing my studies”, said Maram, whose father died in Al-Raqqa in norther Syria, “Material needs did”.

Maram, in her twenties, was displaced with her mother and two younger brothers to Damascus, looking for refuge. She dropped out of her studies and joined the restaurant to sustain the small family. Maram joined the ranks of students who faced hardships in pursing their studies because of the severe economic condition that came about hand in hand with the war Syria lives through for the past seven years.

Study in universities halted because of war, which led to denser populations of students in universities that kept their doors open. Students took jobs to help finance their studies, and some of them left applied science to social science and humanities, while others dropped out altogether. The absence rates rose to around 90% in some departments, according to students. The quality of education decreased after increasing numbers of teachers fled and curriculums became weaker.

This led to lower numbers of graduates, as graduates able to take available job opportunities fell between 1.5 to 2%, according to Human Resources professionals in some companies. Syrian universities dropped out altogether of the international ranking systems.

The number of students residing in Damascus’s student accommodation center rose from 15 thousands in 2011 to 22 thousands in 2017, according to the center’s statistics, as the student accommodation center became the favorable option for students, among rising economic hardships due to the crisis.

“If not for the student housing, we would be begging on the streets”, said a student. Average cost of studying in governmental universities now is between 25 and 50 thousand SYP (50 to 100 USD), including registration, transportation, textbooks, stationary, beside accommodation.

Taking in consideration the average cost of living for Syrian families, that doesn’t exceed 100 USD, according to statistics issued by the Syrian Workers Monitor for Studies and Research in mid 2017, students ignore university classes to look for jobs beside studying, to help cover their costs.

Raif Labbad, a student of economics at Damascus University said that his work in a grocery store after study hours was a reason why he is getting lower grades, “I wish I had gotten higher grades in university, but with the evening job, I don’t have enough time to study”.

Other students work in selling vegetables and fruits on the streets, in constructions work, or work as janitors and guards of warehouses and factories in the city suburbs.

Student work was not a widespread phenomenon before the war years in Syria, especially for students in applied science departments, who need more study hours and regular attendance, according to Mazin, a Teaching Assistant at the Faculty of Pharmacy, who asked not to reveal his family name.

Mazin said that more and more students get jobs year after year, with the continuous deterioration in their ability to work on their studies. “Many students are absent from morning classes because of their night jobs”, he said, “I try as much as possible to help them catch up, but material need is the highest priority”.

Abdulkarim Mawas, a philosophy student in his fourth year at Damascus University, said, “Hardly, 20 students managed to attend theoretical classes regularly, then at exams, we were struck to see that 200 students are taking the exam”, which means that absence rate is around 90%, according to Mawas.

Students prefer to join theoretical [social science, humanities] departments that does not necessitate a specific attendance rate, which means less transportation costs. Others prefer to join 2 years programs at polytechnics, compared to 4-6 years programs at universities.

None of these options was suitable for Maram, who fled Al-Raqqa in northern Syria with her family 3 years ago.

Maram’s (23 years old) father death in Al-Raqqa, which was, combined with the need to look for a job to sustain her mother and two younger brothers, a strong reason for leaving higher education at the Faculty of Pharmacy for good. She said, “I wasn’t able to keep up with study requirements, especially in this department that needs a lot of work. Now, I am working a morning shift at a downtown Damascus restaurant”.

“Insecurity didn’t stop me, neither bombs falling at the gates of university on many occasions. What stopped me was our economic situation. I wish there was some entity providing aid for students like me and many others”.

Brain drain

In parallel with economic hardships students face in universities, there are other problems, including lower governmental spending on education, as the budget of this sector fell from 733,000 USD in 2010 to no more than 175,000 USD in 2017.

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Chart of Higher Education Budgets between 2010 and 2017

Professors also fled universities. Education lost around 20% of higher education teaching staff because of migration, in principle. The rate might go up to 30% in some departments, according to statements by the Minister of Education; Atif al-Nadaf, who said this is due to “economic, social and psychological reasons tied to the current conditions”. One of the most important reasons here is the decrease in salaries of governmental universities teaching staff, not more than 150 USD per month.

Professor Mohie Al-Din S., from the Faculty of Civil Engineering, who left the country two years ago to the United States, said, “Higher education is in for a dangerous fate if the brain drain continues at this rate”.

Decrease in teaching cadres numbers led, according to a member at the executive office of the National Union for Syrian Students who talked to Al-Watan newspaper, to reliance on less efficient cadres to fill the gap, like hiring teaching assistants or Masters students, instead of PhD holders.

Abdulhamid Al-Miqdad, student in third year at Faculty of Economics in Damascus University, said, “We feel there is a great deal of negligence in the teaching process. Most students don’t attend”.

In addition, the condition of war led to the redistribution of students after many governmental universities ceased to be functional due to their presence in hotspots like Al-Raqqa and Idlib. Other universities, including Damascus University, received thousands of students from various governorates. This led to severe pressure on its teaching cadres and infrastructure, as well as leading to very dense classes.

Dean of the Faculty of Law at Damascus University, Dr. Maher Malindi, told Al-Ayam newspaper on 26 November 2017 that the faculty has around 25 thousand students, “which represents a huge challenge, also because of the lower number of teachers, who are now 65 professors only, after 15 of them left because of the crisis. International standards necessitate that no single professor should supervise more than 50 students, while in this faculty we have fivefold this rate”.

Students’ ability to have quality education in applied science departments also deteriorated. “Most of the time, the practical lessons rooms are unbearably crowded”, said Ola Wafi, a student of dentistry.

In departments of engineering and architecture, the cost of graduation projects is between 400 and 1000 USD per project, which led many students to drop the idea of the graduation project, or to join others in a single project.

Sami al-Daqaq, a student in his last year at Mechanical and Electrical Engineering Department in Damascus University, said, “The prices of materials we need for graduation projects were doubled many times. When we asked the faculty administration for help, they said there is no law for granting material support to students to cover graduation projects, and that all the administration can do is provide us with access to in-house labs and workshops during our work on graduation projects”.

Private universities also

Private universities as well were affected by war. Around ten universities had to relocate to safe zones inside cities, according to people working in these universities, and according to data from the Private Universities Division at the Ministry of Education.

Standards at the ad-hoc campuses are lower than those at the original campuses, in terms of equipment, labs, and infrastructure. This is although the new headquarters were approved by the Ministry of Education’s Private Universities Division, as fulfilling minimum standards.

Data from the Private Universities Division at the Ministry of Education shows that less students joined these universities during the first four years of the war, but their numbers increased again starting 2016, especially in applied science departments. Students and teachers think this is due to remittances coming from abroad, from relatives of those students who live and work now in other countries. Private universities seek to attract those who wish to get an acceptable level of education in Syria, instead of traveling abroad for higher education.

A higher-education graveyard

Textbooks were also affected by the war and deteriorating economic conditions. Al-Ayam newspaper, in its issue dated 20 August 2017, described the textbook in Syria as “the higher-education graveyard”. The newspaper said that the reasons for this are bureaucratic limitations and obstacles, like approvals needed for writing new curriculums, and low rates of wages for authors, not more than 200 USD per book.

A university professor from Damascus University who asked to remain anonymous, said, “If a professor wants to buy a book from abroad to widen his knowledge, he will need an amount of money equal to his monthly salary”.

Joudi Mdalal, a student of psychology in her fourth year, in Damascus University, said, “The curriculum is ancient, and it is not changing. Some parts of it are badly translated texts”.

Deteriorated ranking

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Syrian Universities Web Sites Ranking for 2018

Problems of higher education had their toll on the quality ranking of Syrian universities in international ranking lists. In 2015 and 2016 Syrian universities disappeared of international rankings like Shanghai and Top Universities, while some Syrian universities showed up in less rigorous rankings like webometrics, that relies on universities’ websites. The best ranking for a Syrian university in this system, however, was 4500 in 2018, and this was Damascus University, a governmental university.

Ranking gets worse year after year, according to the data at the Quality and Endorsements Division at the Ministry of Higher Education, that seeks to enhance the ranking through developing e-libraries and content of university websites, by publishing MA and PhD theses, and by designing webpages in other languages.

Labor market

Lujeen Asad, head of HR at Al-Wasil Company, an affiliate of Syriatel Communications Group, said there had been a steady deterioration in the skills level of graduates applying for jobs over the last few years.

“Hardly, we can find 3 or 4 graduates at the required level, among 200 applicants”, she said, or a ratio of 1.5 to 2%.

The Higher Education Minister’s deputy, Dr. Riyad Tayfour concurred to the fact that there is not enough linkages between higher education and labor market. Al-Ayam newspaper, on 15 October, quoted Dr. Tayfour saying, “The ministry of education doesn’t possess inputs about the labor market. The ministry is totally out of the picture, out of sync, and it cannot cater for labor market”.

“Students graduate and find themselves unemployed because the skills they got from their education are not needed”, he added.

Dr. Hla Al-Shash, a faculty member and head of HR at the International Arab University, a private Syrian university, said, “what’s education good for if it is for free but without any substantial value?”

“We should stop increasing the numbers of graduates and should instead dedicate our efforts to having qualitative educational outputs with direct linkages to the labor market”, she added.

She also called for more focus on practical and applied aspects, and to move away from the educational paradigm of memorizing textbooks.

She said, “Today, I don’t need English department graduates who memorize Shakespeare’s poems but who are also unable to present themselves in Shakespeare’s language in a job interview”.

Given the war conditions and the crisis, it appears the higher education’s problem in Syria will not end any time soon.

“Governmental sector is the first sector to be hit by the war, and [will be] the last sector to recover from it”, said a professor at Damascus University.